By Jason Johnson
Winnebago County, Iowa, farmer Mark Kingland is utilizing technology such as yield monitors to help him decide where to locate conservation practices and a drone to plant cover crop seed, which will help treat natural resource concerns on his cropland.
Kingland, who farms nearly 1,800 acres throughout the county with his brother, Tom, seeded several hundred cover crop acres for the first time in fall 2023 and used his new drone to broadcast the seed. He said he flew the drone about 12 feet above the corn canopy in September, applying a turnip, cereal rye, annual ryegrass, radish and hairy vetch seed mix.
Kingland also used his drone for spraying fungicide.
“It’s the neatest thing to use. After you’ve calibrated it, you send the drone on its way and the application is very accurate, consistent and all information is mapped and recorded for my permanent records,” he said.
Kingland said that although he never grew cover crops before, he knew he could get a better cover crop stand applying seed with a drone compared to an airplane.
“The drone application really forces the seed down through the canopy, while a plane-applied seed just floats down and often produces an uneven stand,” he said.
In his first fall growing cover crops, Kingland flew his five-seed mix on 190 acres. To help offset the initial cover crop expense, Kingland is utilizing funding assistance through the Cedar River Source Water Partnership project — a Regional Conservation Partnership Program watershed project led by the City of Cedar Rapids and administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A former agronomist, Kingland calls the work cover crops perform a “nutrient elevator.”
“I don’t think cover crops are promoted enough from an agronomic standpoint,” he said. “Cover crop roots go down and extract nutrients from what has been applied and the cover crops bring the nutrients up to be available for the next crop I put in.”
Many farmers who try cover crops for the first time begin with a single species, such as cereal rye. But Kingland wants multiple benefits from the cover crops, like an increase in crop yields and a decrease in herbicide and fertilizer needs.
“The multi-species mix costs more, but I want this to work and accomplish something agronomically,” he said. “The way I look at it, when the cost-share runs out I’ll be making that money back in agronomic benefits.”
Areas of low-yielding cropland show up in bright red on Kingland’s yield monitor maps. NRCS District Conservationist Josiah Olson is working with Kingland to target conservation practices for those red areas. Olson recommended vegetative cover in the form of prairie strips for those spots where Kingland says he is actually losing money.
Prairie strips are small patches and strips of native prairie in farmland that provide benefits such as reduced sediment delivery, increased biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Prairie strips typically include a 25-30 seed mix that Kingland will seed with his drone.
Olson says prairie strips make a lot of sense along timber where cash crops get shaded, compete for water and attract wildlife. Kingland says these “odd” crop rows that are difficult to spray and manage are excellent spots for prairie strips.
“Deer just devastate the first 12 rows on the edge of a field,” he said. “I’m hoping by adding some habitat that deer will concentrate more in that area than my crops.”
“Near terraces where the soil has been compacted and worked over for years also make good prairie strip locations,” said Olson.
He says prairie strips are available for federal funding through the Conservation Reserve Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Kingland chose a five-year EQIP contract that pays $434 per acre per year for his 2.7 acres of prairie strips.
“I’m positioning the prairie strips where I’m not making money farming, so to put prairie strips in a program like EQIP is fantastic,” said Kingland. “I’m continuing to look at other areas where it makes sense to add prairie strips.”
Olson says EQIP and RCPP pay a higher rate than CRP because the contract holder is responsible for paying the seed and installation costs.
For the first time this year, Kingland is strip-tilling his cropland instead of lightly tilling as he did in past years. In strip-till, the soil and residue are left undisturbed from harvest to planting except for strips up to a third of the row width. Strips are cleared of residue and tilled for warming and drying before or during fall planting.
Strip-till is popular in north central Iowa where soils tend to be wet, cold, drain poorly, and seed germination is often delayed.
Kingland says — like cover crops — he switched to strip-till primarily for agronomic purposes.
“Getting the fertilizer down where the crop can use it is essential,” he said. “If I can get fertilizer down 4 to 6 inches, with the residue between the rows, it conserves moisture. This year, that made a big difference.”
With so many changes in a short time period, Kingland said he’s likely to make some mistakes.
“I’ll learn from them, but this is a good transition to where we want to be,” he said.